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What events tourism can do for Australia

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The 2010/11 summer was a big one for tourism in Australia. Despite flooding in various parts of the country and a rising Australian dollar, we secured a visit from US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, populated summer music festivals, brought in crowds for Sydney's New Year's Eve and kept them for Sydney Festival. Not to mention attracted cricket fanatics for the quadrennial Ashes series before the tennis nuts arrived for the Australian Open. Apart from Oprah's visit, the features of this summer were recurring events that are increasingly becoming a fixture for Australian tourism. Add to that the rest of the year when the 'business season'-trade shows, conferences and team-building workshops-kicks off, and you have a calendar of events to lure inbound tourists all year round. "Event tourism is very attractive," says Gary O'Riordan, deputy managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC). "In Australia events like the Olympics, the Rugby World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, generate very big numbers. People's length of stay can be quite long compared to an average business or a leisure visitor and is generally quite high yielding as well."

VIP entry

Events tourism is when a traveller comes to Australia and the primary purpose of their trip is not a holiday. For business visitors this is fairly clear cut; for people coming for sporting fixtures or a music festival, attendance at the Melbourne Cup or Big Day Out is considered 'for leisure purposes'. This makes it hard to put a dollar value on the umbrella of events tourism. "Sporting events and so forth would look at how many people went through the gate and work out the length of stay and they'd come up with a value of what they believe that event has generated for a particular city or destination," says O'Riordan. Business events are a lot easier to quantify as this information is generally collected on passenger arrival cards, and conference organisers know how many international guests attend as delegates and collect information on how many take the pre and post-conference tours. According to O'Riordan, in 2009 the value of business tourism to Australia was $8 billion, representing around 14 percent of Australia's 6 million visitors. This took a hit during the global economic downturn, but started to recover last year. "It's still not back to pre-GFC levels but business and conference travellers are starting to come back," he reports. In the 12 months to 30 November 2010 conference and convention arrivals were up 21 percent and business arrivals were up 14 percent. Rob Harris, director of the Australian Centre for Event Management at the University of Technology, Sydney, says it is sometimes difficult to frame the value of events to their significance to the economy. "The view of it from government funding is the capacity of events in general to attract new money, so many events now include a component around tourism dollars when doing evaluations," he says. Other ways to measure events include non-monetary means, such as promotional value. The Sydney Olympics, for example, had a role in driving future visits, due to increased awareness of Australia through the event coverage, Harris explains. "There would also be some future repeat visitation where people who came for the Olympics would return to do more extensive travel. Obviously they would be advocates for the country, telling friends and so on." Unfortunately this calculation isn't straightforward. "You also have a repulsion effect, how an event may keep people who would otherwise come to a location away because there's a belief that the accommodation is going to be more expensive, it's going to be more crowded, it's going to be more difficult to do things," explains Harris. This happened during the Athens Olympics where many of the Greek Islands recorded a downturn "because they hadn't got the message out there that it was business as normal".

The score

Despite recent natural disasters and the high Australian dollar, "the current event environment is very good," O'Riordan believes. "The message is very much that Australia is open for business and we're ready now." One key thing about events tourism is that the tyranny of distance matters less than the quality of event facilities. You only have to compare the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne with the one in Delhi, India, to see the difference experienced by athletes and spectators alike. "We have a great destination, it's very diverse, it's first rate in terms of the quality of the experiences that we can offer, accommodation and convention facilities," says O'Riordan. "We have great food and wine, that's a very attractive thing. The friendly nature of our people always rates very highly." Harris agrees: "Give Australia the rights to a large-scale event and there's a sense of surety that it will happen pretty well to budget and it will be high quality. Secondly, our cities have attractions that people will engage with pre or post-event." But we can't get complacent, Harris warns, competition is also increasing: internally, with all major cities in Australia boasting a convention centre, and externally as other markets realise the sector's potential. "China is building exhibition spaces. Singapore now has a casino/conference space and it's highly competitive. They've shifted emphasis over to event tourism," he says. O'Riordan also sees a lot of new competition emerging. "A lot of the traditional competition are in Europe, North America and Asia and we're seeing increased competition from new destinations in the Gulf countries-Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar-and places like Macau," he says. "They have huge marketing budgets. It's a very competitive environment and Australia needs to keep looking at ways to innovate to attract more visitors." But there is opportunity for Australian exporters in competition too, adds Harris. "If you look around the world at who is behind these events, it's Australians. We're exporting expertise: education, equipment, systems, processes." He also credits our management infrastructure-the Federal Government, various tourism bodies and event operators all working in tandem to leverage events for tourism purposes-with boosting our reputation in the tourism sector. Other markets are starting to do the same: "Scotland did it a few years ago and created Events Scotland, which was quite successful," he says. "There's an acknowledgement that events are an economic development tool."

Building it-but will they come?

We have stadiums, we have convention centres, but will they attract more events? Harris says there's more to it than that; for starters, we don't have the accommodation capacity to support large-scale events. "If you look at Las Vegas, which has the capacity to deliver events for 75,000 people, those events take in Las Vegas and the immediate satellite towns for accommodation and do that very well," he explains. "We're not in that market because we don't have the capacity." O'Riordan believes that we could build the capacity in Sydney and Melbourne-which recently opened its new, state-of-the-art convention centre-though agrees accommodation is a problem. "Hotel infrastructure has been a big issue. In Perth, Sydney and Brisbane, in peak event season, we just do not have enough room and the rooms that are on sale make the most out of it and chase yield and put their prices up. People will start seeing that it's worthwhile having that kind of infrastructure development and we'll have some new build coming through." He also notes that port infrastructure needs attention too. "In terms of cruise ships we need more good port facilities that can cater for the super ships that will be coming in the future. In Sydney, we just don't have adequate port facilities to attract these guys and keep them here for a decent period of time." The problem with building infrastructure is the idea of legacy. "If the public puts in the dollars, then there has to be something other than a short-term boost in tourism," says Harris. "The increased infrastructure in terms of facilities, the hotels, roads, rail lines, all of those things that get built around events, there has to be sufficient logic to doing that, otherwise you end up with infrastructure that's never used. Events need to be viewed in the setting of the evolution of the city and how it will be leveraged for further economic gain."

Play the game

For individual businesses in the tourism space, events can provide a much needed boost. Both Harris and O'Riordan recommend businesses find their local event body and get in touch with convention bureaus to find out when events are staged. "Any small to medium exporter should be looking to leverage opportunities off events coming through, whatever they may be," says O'Riordan. "Decide how you might want to get involved and find out how to be associated with whatever event is coming in. Get involved in packaging." As for the future, it seems event tourism has a robust outlook. "There is an increasing market for people travelling with a purpose," says Harris. "Unless fuel costs go up substantially-that's our Achilles heel because we're a long distance destination-the future for events tourism in Australia is quite bright." After a year with a high Australian dollar, it seems Australia still offers good value for money, says O'Riordan. The 2010 turnaround proves this is the case. "It's a very positive outlook for tourism in general and everyone is going to be working very hard to increase market share against an increasing amount of competitors around the world. Events tourism is high yielding and everyone should look to get involved. It's an area offering great opportunities."

Talk show walkabout

One of the biggest events this summer was Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure, a four-episode special for US television program The Oprah Winfrey Show, filmed in December 2010 and broadcast in January 2011. Tourism Australia identified the show as the most powerful English language television program to support its There’s Nothing Like Australia campaign. It approached Winfrey's Harpo Productions, inviting the host and her audience to visit in the last season of the show with the main aim of increasing US visitors to Australia while reaching other key countries through the show's international syndication. The result was Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure, which brought 302 audience members and an entourage of some 200 production staff from the USA. Over eight days, in small and large groups, the audience travelled to 25 locations around Australia and spent time in Sydney for the taping of the shows at the Opera House. Tourism Australia worked closely with all of the state and territory tourism organisations and approximately 150 Australian companies including tour companies, transfer companies, resorts and restaurants. The tourism bodies pitched ideas to Harpo, with successful proposals put onto the touring schedule. Tourism Australia managing director Andrew McEvoy, who was at G’Day USA during the screenings, says the response has been very positive. "The impact has been huge in terms of awareness about the shows. My discussions with the trade have indicated a lot of confidence among agents in the US that there are sales to be made as a result." The special episodes were a ratings success and US tourism operators have already recorded a spike in queries and bookings for holidays to Australia. Increased hits to travel websites featuring Australia and Tourism Australia's own site echo this. In the week following the broadcast, more than 3,000 positive media stories in the US and Canada, valued in excess of $180 million, appeared. "When Tourism Australia successfully pitched the Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure to Harpo Productions, we knew that getting her here was only part of the challenge. To really get the job done, to capitalise fully upon this global exposure, we had to drive bookings," says McEvoy. "Oprah may not be the silver bullet for our industry but we are seeing an 'Oprah effect'. Within 30 minutes of the first show screening in the US, one agent from Texas specialising in Australia reported his first group booking. Another reported a 75 percent uplift in business since the Oprah visit to Australia was first announced. It's early days, and I don't want to get too carried away, but it's encouraging."

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